COVID-19 has been hard on just about every industry in New Hampshire, and renewable energy is no exception.
People worried about money are putting off investing in solar panels, and health concerns have made home energy efficiency visits more complicated. But scientists say investments like these can lower energy costs, and remain a critical way to combat the other big crisis we’re facing – climate change.
As part of NHPR’s new climate change reporting project, By Degrees, NHPR’s Annie Ropeik has been trying to find out what might be ahead for the renewable energy industry in the state. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with her about what’s next.
Rick Ganley: So Annie, what has COVID-19 done to the industry in New Hampshire compared to other states?
Annie Ropeik: So it's been hard on the renewable energy and the clean tech industry everywhere. New Hampshire has a much smaller sector in this area than other states, though. So we've had smaller losses, relatively, but also smaller gains as the economy starts to reopen.
So New Hampshire had about 17,000 clean tech jobs before the pandemic [according to Clean Energy New Hampshire]. We lost about 9% of those in the first few months of COVID-19, according to this research firm called BW that's been tracking this kind of issue. And New Hampshire also regained the fewest clean tech jobs of any state in June, which is when the most recent data is available. Just a couple hundred jobs have come back so far.
I talked to Dan Weeks at ReVision Energy about this. They're one of our biggest solar companies in the state. He said they had to furlough more than a third of their team a few months ago. Most of those people have been able to come back and they had very few layoffs.
Dan Weeks: But we are concerned about the several months to come without any policy changes or without stimulus dollars being directed to clean energy, because the amount of new contracts coming in has been way down since March.
Annie Ropeik: Weeks says that they're down about 50% from where they had expected to be on revenue just based on projects they knew they had in the works at this time of year.
Rick Ganley: Have any businesses been able to benefit from any of the stimulus money that's been flowing into the economy?
Annie Ropeik: Yeah, all the companies I talked to have used the payroll protection loans, the PPP loans, and some of them got some small business aid, but they haven't had any direct sort of bailout flowing to them like some other sectors have.
You know, Dan Weeks with ReVison says that it really does seem to be state policies that matter, maybe even more than direct stimulus aid, in keeping them afloat. He said that ReVision has actually really sort of sustained itself on their business in Maine these past few months, because Maine just expanded its state requirement for how much solar power the utilities have to use. And so there have been plenty of new solar projects going ahead in Maine, even in the current economy, that ReVision has been able to sort of pay its bills with.
Whereas in New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu just actually vetoed an expansion to our solar requirement. And so the industry here is pretty much stagnant.
Rick Ganley: But you have reported that the clean tech industry has been pushing really hard to get a bigger piece of the pie. Are they getting any traction? What's their pitch?
Annie Ropeik: So they're saying there's really a dual benefit here. You can create new jobs in an area that has a ton of growth potential. These jobs tend to be higher paying than the average wage in the state. And that, you know, creating more business and more development in this area can help fight climate change by lowering emissions, by cutting down on our energy use and things like that.
And the same goes for infrastructure, we should note. You know, this has maybe gotten even more attention than the traditional renewable energy sector as we talk about COVID-19 stimulus questions. The state's congressional delegation and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, you know, infrastructure is famously bipartisan issue, or so it's supposed to be. And there's a lot of talk about resilient infrastructure building more sustainable roads and bridges that can withstand stronger storms and reduce the damage from climate change. So that's another possibility as we look at ways to create jobs and economic growth in the coming months.
But there's, of course, always going to be a question of how to pay for that. And, you know, groups like the Business and Industry Association here in New Hampshire, that's sort of their sticking point. They say, yeah, we'd love to see an infrastructure package if they can agree on how to pay for it. When it comes to clean tech jobs, they say, you know, shared job growth is great. But I talked to their energy lobbyist, David Creer, and he pointed out that unemployment was really low in New Hampshire before COVID-19, one of the lowest in the country, and says his members could barely fill the jobs that already existed.
David Creer: And I think once this pandemic starts to really subside for good, those jobs will need to be filled. People will go back into the industries that they used to work in. And so I think really what's going to happen is we're going to go back to where we were before new industries really start to spring up.
Annie Ropeik: So, you know, there's this tension here. Groups like the BIA, which is very ingrained in the state, sort of the traditional business group in the state, they don't really see clean tech as any bigger of an opportunity than anything else. But folks in the clean tech sector say that they should be treated that way, that we have an opportunity here to fight climate change, to create jobs that young people especially really want to have, and that this is an area with a ton of sort of untapped growth potential.
Rick Ganley: So Annie, what did the people that you talked to say? Did they have any hope? What's keeping them going?
Annie Ropeik: So they really do feel like this is a moment that, you know, they may never get again in their industry. It's a ton of pressure, like they feel sort of optimistic and scared at the same time, which really sums up a lot of what we can say about climate action generally. They think that the pandemic has helped people sort of connect a lot of dots around health, and marginalized communities and economic impacts in a new way. And they see an opportunity here for a few well-timed policies and potential investments to really jumpstart this industry in states like New Hampshire, where it hasn't been jumpstarted before.
And, you know, this doesn't just go for sort of the top level, big state lobbying groups and the big companies like ReVision. It's all throughout the industry. I talked to a company called Resilient Buildings Group. They're based in Concord. They do energy efficiency audits, you know, retrofits, that kind of thing.
They have an intern named Roni Becker. She's a grad student at Antioch University. Her company has been really getting along pretty well during COVID-19. They're getting a lot more business now from companies that want to upgrade their ventilation systems because they're worried about COVID-19 spreading that way. And every time they get in the door with a company like that, they can pitch them on things like solar panels or weatherization.
And, you know, for Roni, it's about benefits for for the world and for herself, right? She really wants to stay in this field. She's an intern. She's graduating in the spring. And she's really worried about what the job market is going to look like because of COVID.
Ronnie Becker: In an ideal world, like, yeah, I definitely want to be doing a job that makes me feel good and brings positive benefits, not only to myself, but the world at the same time. I think, you know, if it gets really dire, I'll have to kind of lower my standards. It's kind of sad.
Annie Ropeik: So there's a lot of young people, which this state has historically had trouble attracting, who see kind of a moral calling in trying to do this work and wanting to do it in states like New Hampshire. But, you know, we still have a lot of unanswered questions about what kind of policies lawmakers can agree on, what kind of money might be coming down the pike to support that kind of job growth and to support climate action in New Hampshire.